The Vietnamese: part 1
Who exactly were these Vietnamese who were beginning to take over my life? The average GI with his tour of duty of one year never had a chance to learn. There were those, both military and civilian, who spent years in the country and learnt the customs and ways of the people but were I fear never listened to in Washington.
It is not my intention to give an account here of their history. Only as I perceived it at the time. Later I was to learn much more. I bought three books on the country. A Village in Vietnam, I forget the author, but it was a very detailed account of village life which was the basis of Vietnamese society. The Smaller Dragon, by Joseph Buttinger, a very easy introduction to the history of the country. And, Viet Nam, by a Vietnamese, Do Van Minh, himself First Secretary at their embassy in Rome. I was to get to know, and still do, his family very well much later on.
The Vietnamese had progressed down from what was then North Vietnam during the centuries, destroying the Kingdom of Champa on the way. The Chams were a people of Indian origin, and then progressing into the Mekong delta region belonging to Cambodia. They were a very warlike people and had driven out the Chinese after a thousand years of domination and fought a civil war that lasted a hundred years. When the French conquered what they called Indo China in the late 19th century they divided it up into five entities. Cambodia, Laos, Tonkin, Annam and Cochin China. The last three were more or less the three cultural regions of Viet Nam. After the French were driven out Viet Nam was divided politically into two countries. The communist North Vietnam, and the Republic of South Vietnam.
All three regions spoke the same language although with different dialects. It is said the purest is in the north and the most incomprehensible in the centre. There are tribal ethnic minorities in the highlands. There were said to be 20,000 Chams still in the centre. About a million Chinese lived in Cholon, a city attached to Saigon. Many had migrated during the troubles in China in the 1880's. About a third of the population of the Meking delta were Cambodian. There were upwards of a million refugees from the north, mostly catholic, often entire villages had moved with their priests and settled en bloc in the south. The main religion was Buddhism plus there were two main sects. The Cao Dai in Tay Ninh, and the Hoa Hao in Long Xuyen in the delta, the armed forces of the latter were I believe the last to fall to the communists in 1975. The language had been latinised by the Jesuits ( Cecil Rhodes) in the seventeenth century. Simple in structure an absolute minefield for westerners.
Leaving aside the political intrigues, personal jealousies and ambitions etc; it was an incredibly complex structure. In the north though, everybody followed the party line or died. Not democratic but efficient. Whilst trying to absorb these facts, apart from the various military forces I had to get to know the character of the people.